The human immune system depends on a highly diverse collection of antibody-making B cells. B cell receptor sequence diversity is generated by a random recombination process called “rearrangement” forming progenitor B cells, then a Darwinian process of lineage diversification and selection called “affinity maturation.” The resulting receptors can be sequenced in high throughput for research and diagnostics. Such a collection of sequences contains a mixture of various lineages, each of which may be quite numerous, or may consist of only a single member. As a step to understanding the process and result of this diversification, one may wish to reconstruct lineage membership, i.e. to cluster sampled sequences according to which came from the same rearrangement events. We call this clustering problem “clonal family inference.” In this paper we describe and validate a likelihood-based framework for clonal family inference based on a multi-hidden Markov Model (multi-HMM) framework for B cell receptor sequences. We describe an agglomerative algorithm to find a maximum likelihood clustering, two approximate algorithms with various trade-offs of speed versus accuracy, and a third, fast algorithm for finding specific lineages. We show that under simulation these algorithms greatly improve upon existing clonal family inference methods, and that they also give significantly different clusters than previous methods when applied to two real data sets.
Antibodies must recognize a great diversity of antigens to protect us from infectious disease. The binding properties of antibodies are determined by the DNA sequences of their corresponding B cell receptors (BCRs). These BCR sequences are created in naive form by VDJ recombination, which randomly selects and trims the ends of V, D, and J genes, then joins the resulting segments together with additional random nucleotides. If they pass initial screening and bind an antigen, these sequences then undergo an evolutionary process of reproduction, mutation, and selection, revising the BCR to improve binding to its cognate antigen. It has recently become possible to determine the BCR sequences resulting from this process in high throughput. Although these sequences implicitly contain a wealth of information about both antigen exposure and the process by which we learn to resist pathogens, this information can only be extracted using computer algorithms. In this paper we describe a likelihood-based statistical method to determine, given a collection of BCR sequences, which of them are derived from the same recombination events. It is based on a hidden Markov model (HMM) of VDJ rearrangement which is able to calculate likelihoods for many sequences at once.